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China’s alternative multilateralism

The Franco-German Alliance for Multilateralism, now officially up and running, will not be able to expect much of this American presidency. Can it count on China?

For anyone still in doubt about this, Donald Trump made clear where he stands on multilateralism in his address to the UN General Assembly on September 24. In an aside, he attacked the World Trade Organization, a pillar of the present international order, for being biased in favor of China. America under Trump is against multilateralism, and Trump is actively working to undermine it whenever he finds an opportunity – not least in the WTO, whose quasi-judicial dispute settlement mechanism his administration is trying to strangle.  

Together with France, Germany has been working on an Alliance for Multilateralism to strengthen international institutions and develop concrete, sustainable proposals for urgent global challenges. At the invitation of Germany, France, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Ghana, Singapore and more than 50 states met two days after Trump’s speech in New York to formally launch the Alliance for Multilateralism. Its key assumption, according to German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, is simple:  “Only by working together we will all have a future”.  

Can that Alliance count on China? President Xi Jinping did not come to New York this year, and Beijing is busy negotiating a trade deal with Washington that – if it is done at all – will satisfy Donald Trump’s transactional preferences but fly in the face of the present multilateral order. Still, Beijing already presented itself as a paragon of multilateralism even before Trump’s election in 2016: when Xi addressed the UN General Assembly in 2015, he offered a whole bouquet of Chinese initiatives to contribute to that order, prefacing those offers with this summary of Beijing’s present thinking about multilateralism:  

“In today’s world, all countries are interdependent and share a common future. We should renew our commitment to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, build a new type of international relations featuring win-win cooperation, and create a community of shared future for mankind”.   

All is not what it seems 

Sounds good to multilateralist ears? Well, not really. After all, the UN Charter already defines how interstate relations should be conducted – so why is there a need to build “a new type of international relations”? In this one phrase you see that Beijing does not offer a multilateralist alternative to the present US administration, but an alternative multilateralism reminiscent of Donald Trump’s “alternative facts”. 

The difference resembles that between “rule of law”, a founding principle of Western democracies, and “rule by law”, emphasized by the Chinese Communist Party leadership: should governance be accountable to the law and subject to judicial review, or should it use the law as a means to control societies? We know the answer for China: the CCP insists on control, though it tries to make that control palatable through persuasion (i.e. propaganda). That this is not working all that well even in China itself can presently be seen in Hong Kong, though the situation in Xinjiang sadly demonstrated that modern methods of repression can work, at least for now. Beijing’s philosophy on international order similarly prefers China’s sovereign control to universal principles and rules. 

Yet genuine multilateralism is about following the rules even if and when that hurts one’s own interests – not because of altruism, but based on the conviction that in the long run self-interest (and national interests) are best served by a rules-based “rule of law” order. That Beijing rejects this was made clear in its response to the International Court of Arbitration’s (ICA) ruling in the South China Sea maritime territorial conflict between China and the Philippines: although China had itself played an important role in defining and establishing the UN Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), it refused to abide by the ICA’s authoritative application of that law.  

What is at stake 

It isn’t difficult to see why Donald Trump would not understand the logic of “interdependence and a shared common future”, to quote Xi again – but why does the CCP leadership fail to get it? There are two major reasons. First is the CCP’s obsession with control and its fervent belief that technology will deliver the means to hang on to power. Obsessions inhibit clear thinking. The second reason is what you might call the “power fallacy” in Beijing’s assessment of international relations. This fallacy assumes that the West’s decline in world power relations is China’s gain. In fact, however, power in world affairs is not only shifting from the West to the rest, it is also dissipating within the community of nation states, but even more importantly away from states to other centers of power, namely non-state actors such as large corporations, terrorist organizations, civil society and even powerful individuals. 

As power thus becomes more and more diffuse, the chances of control recede. There simply is no way how today’s pressing international problems, starting with climate change, can be successfully addressed by way of control, even if attempted by the most powerful states. The only chance to secure our future consists in broad-based, voluntary global co-operation to define and implement jointly agreed goals through following common principles and rules. 

Those are the - admittedly lofty - ambitions behind the Franco-German Alliance. At present, they are not to the liking of leaders in either Washington or Beijing: while America under Trump is angling for an alternative to multilateralism, Beijing is trying surreptitiously to promote its alternative multilateralism. In the end, leaders in both capitals will have to learn the logic of genuine multilateralism, or be overtaken by history.